In case you haven’t heard, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson is running a Kickstarter campaign titled “Surprise! Four Secret Novels by Brandon Sanderson.” It is the most successful Kickstarter of all time, with US$30 ($42) million in pledges and more money rolling in every day.
Sanderson has been very busy lately; beyond those four new secret novels, he also has The Lost Metal: A Mistborn Novel arriving this fall. If you’re not familiar with his work, he’s an epic fantasy author who’s been publishing with Tor Books (one of the premiere SFF publishers in the business) since 2005 and has apparently never stopped to breathe since then. He’s got dozens of books under his belt, including the Stormlight Archives and the last three books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which he wrote out while using Jordan’s notes as a scaffold.
Sanderson’s $US30 ($42) million fundraiser is no fluke; it is the result of a 20 years of hard work, humility, and accessibility, as well as a science-fiction/fantasy fanbase that is well-known to have money to spend on their favourite creators. You only have to look at other Kickstarters to see that, like Critical Role’s Vox Machina animation or Magpie Games’ Avatar TTRPG. The nerds are out in force, and just waiting for their favourites to deliver.
In a new interview with YouTuber Daniel Greene, Sanderson goes into some of the details about his newest project, and specifically remarks on the state of traditional publishing. That’s what happens when an author acquires an agent (usually by cold-querying, sometimes by referral, occasionally through direct pitching at a convention) who then sells that author’s book to a publishing house. What Sanderson is doing is very clearly not traditional publishing, and is considered self-publishing, which has long been the domain of zines, chapbooks, and most recently Amazon. There are some “hybrid” companies in between traditional publishing and self-publishing, but many of them are little more than vanity publishers–companies that authors pay to produce their book, a process which often swindles authors, according to the SFWA .
Self-publishing has been gaining popularity for a number of reasons–including the accessibility of Amazon and the global nature of the marketplace (although often publishers from the global south and underserved countries report issues with payout). But it has, for the most part, not upset traditional publishers. A $US30 ($42) million dollar Kickstarter for four books, however, might be enough to turn heads. But Sanderson says in the interview that he doesn’t want to eschew traditional pub forever — just for this particular project. His reasoning? Bookstores. Going the self-pub route makes it very hard to distribute copies to bookstores, and there is no current plan to do so laid out on the Kickstarter page. Here is where traditional publishing has the advantage. Its distribution model can compete with Amazon, and that model relies on bookstores.
Sanderson believes that there is very little competition for Amazon out there, and bookstores are not only their best “hedge against Amazon’s dominance.” He also mentions in the video that “my career was partially made by bookstore employees sharing my books with people. And I think that bookstores are really important … The more we lose the bookstores, the harder it is for new authors to break into the industry.”
He’s partially right. He doesn’t mention that only 11% of books published in 2018 were by authors of colour (New York Times). The hoops debut authors have to jump through have always existed, but always more so for people of colour, queer people, neurodiverse folks, and those with disabilities. While Sanderson is incredibly talented and has written some wonderful books, there’s the inherent advantage of being a straight, white male in a white-dominated industry.
The struggles of people of colour in publishing are well-documented. The problems with straight people gatekeeping queer media has been all over the news with Disney’s response (or lack thereof) to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The racism, homophobia, and sexism that exist in the real world are heightened in publishing, where the gatekeepers are primarily cis, straight, white women working underneath primarily cis, straight, white men. Sanderson continues, saying that he wants to send a “wakeup call to publishers… There are some things about traditional publishing that I think are backward-thinking, and I wanted to kind of prove to them a bunch of things I’ve been saying for many years.”
I’d like to know what he’s been saying–especially because it’s not just his Kickstarter, but is also the product of Dragonsteel Books, Sanderson’s own version of a traditional, mid-size press. Dragonsteel has been creating leather-bound copies of Sanderson’s books, special art, and merchandise for years, and is actually a pretty large company that will be working with Sanderson to bring all these projects together.
It’s clear that Sanderson is a unique case. He works hard, he’s gotten lucky when it counts, and he has the armature to capitalise on that luck when it lands in his lap. His impact is undeniable — but will this latest project have an impact on other authors who might want to try self publishing? There are very few who would be able to pull off a stunt like this and garner more than what they would have earned from a traditional advance. While he might hope to send a message to the Big Five traditional publishers about the powers of self-publishing, he might just be sending a message about himself.